Russian rugby living the dream
Already boosted by Rugby's inclusion in the Olympic Games from 2016, Russia reached new heights last weekend by qualifying to compete in a first Rugby World Cup, in New Zealand in 2011.
Their 21-21 draw against battling Romania in Sochi guaranteed them a top two finish in the European Nations Cup, and the World Cup place they craved.
"For me this is probably the top of my dreams, to play for my country, my national team, and to qualify for the World Cup," said wing Vasily Artemyev, who until recently was a member of the Leinster A side, having studied in Dublin.
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"It was a very tough emotional task for the players to play a match at such a high level of expectation as we did against Romania, and to be honest after the final whistle went I felt a bit emptied out.
"Then a couple of days after that the achievement that we'd made started to sink in.
"It's only now that we've started really talking about it as a team, and that we understand fully what's we've achieved with that result."
Potential Rugby Giant
Russia's emergence as a genuine tier two presence has not
happened by accident. Rugby has been progressing steadily there
over the last number of years, and more recently under the guidance
of the IRB's High Performance Programme.
The Union possesses excellent structures and a strong coaching staff, including former Sale Sharks player and coach Steve Diamond, and the entire set-up has geared itself increasingly towards the national team with strong age grade and Sevens structures.
Additionally, the country is boosted by a relatively strong domestic competition, including a professional league of 12 teams, which provides a local pathway for players to improve their skills.
"To qualify for the Rugby World Cup is absolutely enormous for us," the Union's Chief Executive Howard Thomas told Total Rugby Radio.
"To get across the line in the European Nations Cup I would say is the hardest route to qualify for the World Cup for tier two countries.
"We have a very competitive league with the likes of Georgia, Romania and Portugal and I'm proud of the players and everyone involved.
Thomas: Much work to do
"Having said that, we know that we have to step up
enormously. We look at the last World Cup and see how well Georgia
did, and obviously Portugal and Romania had their moments and also
Russia currently lie second in the ENC standings, but victory against table-toppers Georgia in their final match could mean they finish as the top European qualifier for RWC 2011.
Europe 1 will face Pool B matches in New Zealand against Argentina, England, Scotland and the final play-off qualifier, while Europe 2 will meet Australia, Ireland, Italy and what would be mouth-watering tie against the USA in Pool C.
"You have to set realistic ambitions," added Thomas. "Whichever group we end up in, we will have our Cup final with another tier two country and that has to be a must-win game for us, but equally in all the games you play you want to make it a competitive game of rugby.
"We want to make sure that our defence is up for it, physically we're up for it and fitness-wise we're up for it.
"We will have a huge amount of work to do in what will appear a very short period of time, although it's 18 months. For us that will go very, very quickly."
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